|Posted on February 18, 2017 at 2:20 AM|
EAST CHICAGO — Gov. Eric Holcomb’s visit Friday was filled with optimism and promises of more aid for residents living in the lead- and arsenic-contaminated USS Lead Superfund site and a cash-strapped city grappling with crisis.
"We will bring all there is at our disposal ... I feel like when we come out of this on the other end and get this right, we will be in a better place," Holcomb said Friday at a roundtable with state legislators, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland, along with other local officials and representatives from East Chicago community groups.
Holcomb’s visit comes a week after issuing an emergency declaration Feb. 9 providing 30 days of enhanced state assistance to help relocate the remaining 86 families from the West Calumet Housing Complex, secure money to demolish the complex, seek funding to replace lead water service lines and other aid.
The order also authorizes state agencies to coordinate an emergency response, petition EPA to provide grant money for the replacement of lead pipes, engage the new federal administration for greater assistance and provide more blood testing.
His predecessor, now-Vice President Mike Pence, was heavily criticized for leaving office without issuing such a declaration.
The Rev. Cheryl Rivera, executive director for the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations, thanked Holcomb for the declaration.
“We want to thank you for acknowledging the cries of the people because we knew the city did not have all the resources needed to address this man-made catastrophe,” she said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added the 322-acre site to the Superfund list in April 2009, but it wasn't until this past summer that the city told more than 1,000 residents at the West Calumet Housing Complex — located in the first of three residential cleanup zones — they had to move out after sampling revealed soil in some areas contained more than 200 times the EPA's allowable limit for lead.
Residents living at more than 1,000 properties in zones 2 and 3 have not been told to relocate, and the EPA began excavating contaminated soil from their yards in October.
The governor’s visit was welcomed Friday by community leaders and affected residents, but many of their questions — centered on urgent needs of homeowners, such as water filters, and how to address long-term health effects of those exposed to these toxins decades before the crisis came to light last summer — went unanswered.
Asked by reporters, Holcomb shied away from fully committing to providing state funds for water filters in light of EPA finding elevated lead levels in some homes’ drinking water last year. He did say he’s “keeping an open mind” and is in talks with federal officials about options.
Mayor Copeland said he is working with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to conduct comprehensive testing of the city's entire water supply.
As part of Holcomb’s declaration, U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, said he is working closely with HUD and local officials in securing emergency funds to demolish West Calumet.
Holcomb’s declaration, issued Feb. 9, provides for 30 days of enhanced state assistance for residents who have yet to relocate from the lead contaminated West Calumet Housing Complex, as well as other lead-impacted citizens in the affected area.
Holcomb told The Times he will re-evaluate the situation at the end of the 30 days to see if an extension is necessary.
Holcomb also ordered state agencies to seek federal approval for more lead testing sites throughout the city, promote the development of new, affordable rental housing in East Chicago and create a one-stop website for residents to keep up with federal, state and local progress reports. In addition, the Indiana Department of Homeland Security is empowered to obtain any services needed on an emergency basis from any level of government.
A total of 86 of 340 families remain at the West Calumet Housing Complex, where people were told last summer they had to relocate because of lead and arsenic contaminated soil. Housing Authority officials want residents out by March 31.
East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland told reporters Friday the city is rehabbing public housing units in the North Harbor area to relocate families that remain at West Calumet beginning March 31.
Under a civil rights agreement reached by the East Chicago Housing Authority and a Chicago-based housing justice watchdog in November, the local housing authority can temporarily relocate the remaining families starting March 31, but the emergency transfer is subject to HUD review of vacancies.
Akeesha Daniels, a mother of three who remains at West Calumet, argued at Friday’s roundtable that there are too few housing options available to move out by March 31. She fears moving her three sons to the Harborside area due to gang tensions between the two communities.
“I’ve looked at over 40 properties on my own without no help,” Daniels said. “I haven’t been successful in finding a place to move to.”
After Superfund homeowners laid out serious health ailments potentially caused by long-term lead exposure, East Chicago Health Commissioner Gerri Browning said the heavily industrialized community has long suffered an “inordinate amount of health problems,” questioning elected officials’ immediate focus on relocation and demolition.
“What about the health of all the people who lived in the area all of these years?” he said. “It’s well known to us, both anecdotally and factually, that East Chicago has its fair share of disease. It’s no secret that our people who are either black, brown or poor, are living in these industrial areas … and we’ve suffered health-wise because of that.”
Holcomb said while “a tall order,” alleviating the crisis in East Chicago is achievable.
"Hoosiers help Hoosiers. We're going to prove it,” he said.